An Open Letter to TED

arrangementsKen Jordan, Publisher & Editorial Director, Evolver/Reality Sandwich, has written an open letter to TED’s Chris Anderson in an attempt to get the TED organization to stop squirming around for a minute and talk about the real issues at stake in their decision to cordon off large swaths of scientific inquiry:

“TED’s prominence has made it, perhaps inadvertently, into an forum that validates worthy intellectual progress. If a good idea gets momentum, it will most likely end up, one way or another, presented by TED or one of the TEDx offshoots.

That’s why the censure of the TEDx talks by Graham Hancock and Rupert Sheldrake is so dismaying. As you must know, to many of us the reasons behind their removal from the TED YouTube site are just not clear. On behalf of the Evolver community, I’d like to extend an invitation to you to help us understand the reasoning that led to TED’s actions, because we suspect that behind your decision is an uninformed prejudice against groundbreaking research in a critical area of study, the possibility that consciousness extends beyond the brain.”

The issue here is not one of censorship, it’s one of social engineering. TED was not designed to enlighten anyone, it is a functional piece of venture capitalism. No more, no less. It will never support open cultural growth, it will always support technological development, and the development of social mechanisms to integrate new technology into the culture. TED is a for profit organization which finds its animus in the minds of talented individuals who lend their credibility to its presence. This has it’s place in our technological society, but it does not make them paternal substitutes for our psycho-spiritual development. It makes them a big, highly organized infomercial for new tech with Chris Anderson playing a more British Billy Mays.

Jordan highlights the danger in allowing an organization like TED too much authority in defining what is or is not science:

“Through its actions, TED appears to be drawing a line around this area of investigation and marking it as forbidden territory. Is this true? In the absence of any detailed reasoning in TED’s public statements, it’s hard to avoid this conclusion. It would seem that, despite your statement that “TED is 100% committed to open enquiry, including challenges to orthodox thinking,” that enquiry appears to not include any exploration of consciousness as a non-local phenomenon, no matter how it may be approached.

This in turn leads to more questions, such as: Can we expect that other TED talks referring to the possibility of nonlocal consciousness will also be removed from YouTube? Should future TEDx organizers steer clear of any speaker who is associated with these investigations?

That would be a shame, since rigorous research in this field is producing intriguing results, and evidence for the non-locality of consciousness keeps growing.”

With this in mind we need to recognize that there is something rather silly in Anderson’s petty semantic quibble that they are not “censoring” anything. Of course not, they are defaming and shaming thinkers who are working on the frontiers of science, and they are actively cultivating a sense of taboo around certain areas of inquiry. They are doing so without any clarification that these areas fall outside of their focus in the first place, unless we’re talking about brain implants to create artificial telepathy.

It is also important that we don’t give them the credibility to censor anything. They are a company, no different than the gas station on the street corner, incapable of censorship because they don’t have the authority to censor. They can isolate topics from becoming part of their socially integrated marketing plans, but all this means is that it’s not part of their brand. We don’t go to McDonald’s expecting to get pants, and we now know we shouldn’t shop at McTED if we want something more than a high tech version of the Oriental Trading Company catalog.

The irony of two peer reviewed papers dealing with the question of the speed of light as a constant appearing shortly after TED’s science board citing this as a major gaff in Rupert Sheldrake’s talk is  embarrassing for an organization that is supposed to be tapping the leading thinkers in the world. The science board seems to exist in a hermetically sealed chamber where they don’t interact with other scientists, or more likely, considering TED’s operational focus, it’s a group of R&D folks that aren’t dealing much with anything outside of a commercial scope. None of these are attractive qualities in people advising a culturally virulent organization that has been so successful in capturing the public’s interest in science.

What really intrigues me is that after having some of the leading thinkers on social design pass through their speaker platform, they’ve done such an abysmal job of separating themselves from controversy. You’d also think that Anderson might have acquired some more nuanced insights into human nature with a youth spent in Pakistan, India and Afghanistan. Nothing points to the lack of efficacy in the corporate idealization of strategic communication like thought leaders who should know better falling over themselves with foot firmly rooted in mouth.

Part of me likes to entertain the thought experiment where TED has stepped out as the Judas Goat to open up the public conversation around these issues.  All of their flopping around, mumbling, innaccurate accusations and the rest could be some brilliant pantomime of all that is wrong with the commercialization and calcification of the scientific establishment. Perhaps this is TED’s greatest “Talk,” an extended immersive parody played out in the public square to the delight of all who were waiting for things to finally come to a head. At the end of it Socrates will come down on a cardboard cloud, deus ex machina, to present an Aristophanean punch line. None of this would be an issue if they just said, “Look we’re a high priced car show. Chris Anderson used to run a computer hobby magazine. We’re not sophisticated thinkers, we’re sophisticated salesman working the social enterprise market. What do you expect?”

Nominations for the 2014 TED Prize are open, and they’ve left a very nice window for these issues to be brought even further to the fore:

“Nominate an individual — or yourself — to envision and execute a high-impact project that can spur global change. Our TED Prize winner will have an ambitious wish — and the vision, pragmatism and leadership to turn it into reality.”

My high-impact project would be for the people involved in promoting science and technology to grow up and stop playing house with our culture. I’m sure that those speakers who have been maligned in everything that has gone on in the TED situation have some more refined projects they could think of, and I’m also sure there are many others out there who are working in areas that TED isn’t mature enough to deal with that would have equally engaging ideas.

So, I think we all know what to do, rather than rolling in the carcass of the TED debacle, let’s move ahead, take TED at their word and give them some nominations that can make a difference. The nominations are a piece of bacon hanging from a Yosemite tree waiting for bears. Has their puff and bluster in this last round been enough to bring things back to normal? Has all the hot air stifled the spirit of further engagement?  It would be a shame if their clumsy social media siege tactics turn out to be truly effective. I know I’m tired of hearing about TED, but the 2014 nominations sit there as a test to the public on whether there really is a serious issue in how they’ve treated a number of invited speakers, and respected cultural figures.

In Jordan’s letter he is honest about the positive impact TED has had, and if you’re into their scene not much has changed, we’ll all still get aquatic ape theories, advice on positive posture, TEDTalk play lists from sophisticated people like Bill Gates, and all the rest of it. If you want something more innovative, the good news is there are a number of other options that have become more visibly important now that TED has drawn a line in the sand, such as Evolver Learning Labs, the New York Open Center, the Rhine Research Center, the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and many others which host webinars, events, and lectures in areas that TED gets too ticklish to handle. There is also the upcoming ExTEDxWestHollywood event Brother Can You Spare a Paradigm which will contain all the deliciously taboo intellectual treats that TED doesn’t think are good for you.

Really we should be thanking TED for giving us a chance to jump ship from an organization that looks like it might be mozying out to pasture to make room for the next step in truly revolutionary cultural change.

16 Comments on "An Open Letter to TED"

  1. Charlie Primero | Apr 14, 2013 at 1:20 pm |

    “We’re sophisticated salesman working the social enterprise market. What do you
    expect?” Ha! Good read. Thanks man.

  2. The implicit idea that Graham Hancock, author of thirteen books, wasn’t trying to use his TED talk to sell something is what helps this story remain a fresh source of comedy to me.

    • You think a TED speaker guilty of intellectual hucksterism? What are you, some kind of infidel?

    • You’re right, he should have not written those books and just taken an office job.

      Graham is an author, he makes his living that way, and we live in a capitalist society where he has to sell books. His message is not one of control, and he is sincere in how he expresses his own faults. His piece on quitting cannabis was surprising in how raw and honest it was.

      It’s true that as an author there are certain things he has to do that may seem contradictory to the message, but that is what this moment in time is allowing us the opportunity to work to change.

      TED’s treatment of some of it’s recent TEDx speakers is just a catalyst. It wouldn’t matter if it were Hancock, Sheldrake, or anyone who might go up with a similar message only to be shut down in such a rude manner.

      Why close the door on this moment of social clarity worrying about something so petty as an author selling books?

    • is there anyone at TED that isn’t trying to sell something?

      • There are a few merely trying to sell Bad Ideas, they’re usually independently wealthy.

  3. Best take on the topic, yet!

    For those interested, ExTEDxWestHollywood is livestreaming right now:

    Looks like it just started an hour ago (11 PDT). I just turned it on now, so I’m not sure what’s been missed.

  4. Gabriel D. Roberts | Apr 14, 2013 at 4:28 pm |

    Nicely done, Mr. Metcalfe.

  5. LifelongLIb | Apr 14, 2013 at 4:31 pm |

    Thanks for putting a finger on something that I’ve sensed about TED and couldn’t articulate. But as far as Hancock, Sheldrake, etc.:

    If you think somebody’s bogus, then don’t invite them to speak.

    If you do invite them to speak, they get to make their presentation and have it made available on the same basis as everybody else. No after-the-fact censorship.

    Simple fairness.

  6. Ever read the transcript of a TED talk? There’s amazingly little intellectual content viewed outside the presentation context. IMO, TED is contributing to the dumbing down of our culture by simplifying intellectual content without letting people know they’re at best, eating mental cotton candy for intellectual nutrition and not steak.

  7. The minute they listened to Alain de Botton, I stopped.

  8. mindofsound | Apr 15, 2013 at 12:18 pm |

    Far too harsh. I’ve watched countless TED talks which feature no commercial advertising, and which discuss ideas with no commercial value. Acting like TED is just a commercial enterprise is just the author being spiteful.

    • I worked on developing one of the first TEDx events in the Chicago area. I have seen things from the other side. Whatever positive value comes out is a byproduct of their commercial focus. They are fully integrated into the venture capitalist cycle, which at times does have positive value, and at other times occludes it.

      They are a social mechanism, neutral until the effects take hold one way or another. My concern is with the illusion that they are something more.

  9. bobbiethejean | Apr 15, 2013 at 11:35 pm |

    If TED is so terrible and elitist and such garbage, then why are people campaigning so hard to get Sheldrake and Hancock in? Consider the question begged.

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